Women in Combat

11/05/2015 03:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Now that we've had three women graduate from Ranger School and are leading up to Veterans Day, I wanted to dig deeper into the issue of women in combat and the United States Military. I was privileged to be able to speak with Marine and former AH-1W 'Super Cobra' pilot, Kyleanne Hunter, and am excited to share a portion of our conversation about the role of women in combat and the ongoing debate in this country of whether or not certain military jobs in combat should be opened up to women or not.

She flew several combat missions overseas as a combat attack helicopter pilot and then worked in Congress while serving in the Marine Corps. She left the Marine Corps in 2012 to pursue a PhD at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She is also the co-founder of the Think Broader Foundation and Think Broader LLC. It should also be noted she could crush me in any form of cycling and likely running, hiking, climbing, etc.

Kyleanne, why did you join the Marine Corps in the first place? Did you have a family history of military service?

I wanted an adventure! After graduating from Georgetown University, I worked for an international telecom company, and then a defense contractor. While I had great colleagues in these jobs and didn't mind the work, sitting in an office wasn't my cup of tea. I initially thought about joining the National Guard, but their recruiter was out to lunch. The Marine Officer Selection Officer, however, was there and sold me. Joining the Marines seemed both a physical and mental challenge, and a way to give back to my country. While I do not have a family history of military service...This is a way I could give back. The Corps' values of honor, courage and commitment spoke to me on this level.

You've written about how, during your training, you were faster than many of your male counterparts and this was seen as a negative by both men and women in your unit. Why do you think being in excellent physical condition was a bad thing? Were you ever rewarded for your physical performance? Were men?

I'd like to think it was a good thing, however it wasn't treated that way. I think a lot of the negative reaction came from being an unknown. Women aren't expected to perform as well as, not to mention better, than men. When they do, it challenges many comfortable assumptions people have about how the world is supposed to work. Training standards and programs are based off these assumptions - that women need things to be made easier for them. (Kate Germano has a wonderful explanation of the consequences of these assumptions). When this is proven false, the basis of the entire system is thrown into question. So I don't think it was me, specifically, that was seen as a negative, but the fact that the comfortable assumptions on which the system was based being thrown into disarray. People don't know how to react, so they lash out to try and preserve a comfortable, though antiquated and harmful, system.

I did receive the Officer Candidate School award for physical fitness and was the company's honor graduate. I have a file cabinet full of letters of accommodation for receiving perfect physical fitness test (PFT) scores. While these things are nice, they do not reflect the cultural negativity surrounding women's performance.

You went on to become an attack helicopter pilot. What was your experience in training and later deploying as a combat pilot in I'm assuming, a mostly male unit?

You're definitely correct on the mostly male aspect. I was the first female Cobra pilot in my squadron. (There had been one female Huey pilot, but she had left the squadron when I got there). I was very fortunate that my first Commanding Officer was an amazingly supportive officer. He anticipated some of the practical challenges of integrating a woman into an all-male ready room and made them non-issues (ie sleeping arrangements, toilet/shower facilities, etc). He treated me as just another pilot.

My peers, and those just senior to me, were a mixed bag. Most were absolutely fine with me. I think that being thrust quickly into a deployment helped this. Mission accomplishment became the primary focus. I could get the job done. In this vein, deployments were actually much easier. Time at home training, however, was more contentious. At home my personal life became the subject of rumor and speculation, and the fact that I was a woman was brought up in regards to unit cohesion and morale.

What bothers me about this is that it in these situations it is always that woman that is forced to explain her worth. There were great concerns about both promiscuity and sexual assault. However, men were never called into question in this regard.

Why is it ok to question a women's status in this regard and not a man's? Men are the by and large the majority of perpetrators in military sexual assault cases, and at least half of the party involved in any consensual sexual misconduct. However, these issues always raise questions about women's suitability, not men's. If we're going to have a frank conversation about the potential issues surrounding the mixing of men and women, we have to stop assuming any misconduct someone caused is merely by the presence of women, and address both genders' role in it.

If the United States already lets women fly combat missions in helicopters, what would be different than letting women serve in combat units?

In my opinion, nothing. There have been arguments made that the infantry is 'special.' Yes, they are the heart of the military. In the Marine Corps we are constantly taught that everything we do is to support the infantry Marine on the ground. However, these same arguments were made about women flying combat missions in 1992. In fact the quotes cited from the 1992 Presidential Commission on page 13 of the Assessment of Women in Combat Assignment memo were about women in combat aircraft. What is omitted in this citation is that women have successfully integrated and increased combat effectiveness of both the fixed and rotary wing attack community over the past twenty years. Quite frankly, the argument being used about the special nature of the infantry has been proven false by the successful integration of women into combat aircraft.

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The integration of women into combat aircraft also falsifies the notion that the 'very limited number' of women who would meet the standards for combat arms positions would somehow be a problem. Since 1992, less than 2% of fighter and attack pilots (both fixed and rotary wing) have been women. This limited number has not in any way hindered unit cohesion or mission effectiveness.

The Marines, earlier this year completed what they are calling a comprehensive study about the viability of whether or not women should be allowed into specific combat arms jobs. If I'm correct, the document ultimately concluded that women were not physically fit to serve in these combat arms jobs. What is your reaction to the study?

In short, the study was very problematic. Men and women did not start on an even playing field, nor were they judged against an objective standard. The 'findings' from the study are more problematic. The actual data from the study has not yet been released, so all conclusions are based on the analysis of one individual (BGen Smith, the author of the above-linked memo). From an analytical perspective, it's just bad science. I would hope that something with such grave implication would be given more independent rigor. Just a few thoughts included below (author's note: more on Kyleanne's thoughts on the methodology of the study here).

No baseline standard prior to the study being conducted. Prior to the study, the only requirement to attend infantry training was being a male who had passed boot camp or been commissioned into the USMC. It was assumed that males could perform all the necessary tasks for combat based on the fact that they were male alone. This leads to several problems:

  • Because it is assumed that men are naturally more fit/stronger, they receive more hours of tactical instruction (where women received more physical instruction because it was assumed they were weaker). The areas were women struggled were primarily tactical. However, the sample did not receive equal instruction prior to the study.

  • There was no standard to which women could prepare themselves prior to participating. Since the requirement had always been to 'be male,' there was no way a woman could prepare on her own. (Contrast this to Ranger School which has a set physical requirement for entry).

  • Because of this, there is no historical data on the percentage of males unable to meet physical standards.

  • Setting the standards during the study is very questionable science ... raises questions as to the motivation for setting them where they did.
  • Contrived Environment for the Study. This study was not a natural experiment, but a controlled environment tainted by evaluator bias.
  • In looking at hazing and sexual assault rates, (p12) no mention if they are concerned with the perpetrator of the victims. Given the cultural attitudes towards sexual assault, this could be twisted for sure.
  • The quotes drawn from the 1992 study (p13) were put out of context. The study, ironically, is about women in combat aircraft. All those quotes have been proven wrong as women have successfully integrated into ALL aircraft positions. This part is conveniently left out.
  • Recently two women graduated from the US Army's Ranger Course. Do the Marines think their training for these jobs is more difficult than the Army's Rangers?

    This is a tough one. Marine leadership has argued that the Marine Infantry is 'different' (see page 5 of the above-linked document). However, their own study showed that some women were not only capable, but very successful in completing infantry tasks. The fundamental difference, as I see it, between how the Army and the Marine Corps leadership has approached this issue is on the issue of individual vs. collective standards. The Army used Ranger School - their premier infantry leadership school with preset standards - as a litmus test for women's fitness (both physical and mental) to succeed in combat MOS'. They judged each individual student - male or female - on their own standards. With the graduation of the first two women, there was no assumption that ALL women would (or should) be capable of completing Ranger School and/or participating in combat arms MOS', but asserted that gender should not be a variable in determining eligibility. One standard, no exceptions. What the Marine Corps did, was take the average performance of 100 women ranked against men (not an independent standard) and deem that this average was lower than the male average, and therefore women were poorly suited for combat jobs. However, this isn't about averages. This is about an individual Marine's suitability to serve.

    What do you think happens next for women in the military? Why is what happens in the military important for the rest of society?

    Ultimately, I think that women will be integrated into all aspects of the military. This is essential for military effectiveness in our changing world. Political leadership has recognized this. And, in the words of Samuel Huntington, the basis of a well functioning civil military partnership is 'the proper subordination of a competent, professional military to the ends of policy as determined by civilian authority.' Women have been an essential component of the past 15 years of combat. Will their advancement have growing pains? Of course. However, it will also provide a more secure America.